The Deep Mystery in The Flip of A Coin

(The mystery of the different Levels of existing things is explored through the example of the simple tossing of a coin. Keeping it pretty lite and pretty curious while trying to popularize the ideas of philosopher Dan Dennett.)

How can a thing be two things? Well, they can and we think that all the time as long as the many different ways we characterize a thing don’t trip all over each other. Some large degree of consistency is necessary.

Two Old Dogs

Like a dog can be my pet, a mammal, a Beagle, Nika, and a congregation of atoms. I guess that means that I have pet atoms, and if I owned two dogs I would still have pet atoms just two different clumps of them. Funny how my pet clump loves to runabout the yard in perfect attunement to the expansion of the universe and the constant decay of her sub-atomic particles. Those adorable little particles sure do get a charge (a different electrical charge?) when my wife comes home! My dog’s brain-waves love my mammalian mate. Its cute little tail (and brain waves, I presume) wiggle and waggle all over the place on those occasions.

Now that didn’t sound quite right to me, but I guess it’s true somehow. We just have to keep all our radically different ways of talking about something in their own compartments. We cannot mix them like a tossed salad. And speaking of tossing…

A Fair Human Coin Flip

When we think about coin-flipping, we have a somewhat similar issue. How should we talk about it? On the one hand, there is “elbow room,” “wiggle room” available, says philosopher Dan Dennett. We don’t know whether a fair human flip will come up heads or tails, but we do know that it will come up one of those. In fact, we have a whole set of “laws,” the laws of probability, that say in the long run heads and tails will come up with equal frequency. So if, oddly enough, you have just flipped a coin five times and they all came out heads, don’t say “Tails, it’s got to be” for the sixth flip, because it doesn’t. Yes, that is elbow room.

Dennett cites the famous English 18th century philosopher, David Hume: we want “a certain looseness” to exist in our world. It “prevents the possible from shrinking tightly around the actual,” says Dennett and is “presupposed in our use of the word “can.” Many things “can” do various things and have various states. This is presupposed in our ideas of human freedom, in the social sciences, biology, engineering, and in statistics and probability (Elbow Room, 1984, p.145)

Meanwhile, we also believe that every flip of that coin is completely determined by all the physical laws and conditions that compose it, in other words, no elbow room.  If we could control, or know, all the conditions, no mystery to the outcome of any flip would remain.  “Mystery gives way to mechanism,” as Dan Dennett has stated in many circumstances.

(Diaconis’ accurate Coin Flipper. The spring must be finely adjusted for each location and time. Heads up will bring you a Heads outcome at a 100% rate for some appreciable time thereafter.. The coin flips from pictured red cup, and then lands there.)

Elbow room or no elbow room? In fact, contemporary magician turned mathematician, Persi Diaconis has developed a highly accurate mechanical coin-flipper. And Pierre Laplace, an 18th century French physicist, postulated that with Newton’s laws, if we had a very powerful intelligence (Laplace’s Demon) capable of discerning the position of all the particles of the universe at one instant, to that knower all past and future would be one, all movements and destinations—including our flipping coin—would be known.

(In Roman times it was called navia aut caput, “ship or head.” The head is that of Emperor Pompey the Great.)

So what is the truth of this two-sided event? Is it designed to allow “a certain looseness” or totally determined?  How do we think both ways about this ‘simple’ event? Dennett has tried to make much of this combination.     

First, we have limited knowledge.  We are not Laplace’s Demon; we are too much in the middle of all things: too much limited in time and in space. The position and velocity of all particles at one instant is beyond our capabilities. We have that Ideal of Perfect Scientific Knowledge as ‘a guiding light,’ but our limitations are well known to us and deeply embedded in our way of thinking.

Second, in a very important sense, The Outcome of a Coin Toss has No Cause.  How could this be?  Some of us might think that a human being can do un-caused, “free,” things, but not a dead and dumb disc of metal!  But, there are ambiguities in our idea of “cause” explored by philosophers going as far back as Aristotle. A sufficient cause and a necessary cause is the distinction Dennett will use here, but at another point a different idea of causation will also be prominent. (Freedom Evolves, 2003, p.87)

A coin-toss has sufficient causes, argues Dennett.  Its outcome was caused by many things, including the character and qualities of the particles of the universe one minute after the Big Bang. Whatever the situation of those particles, they were at least sufficient to allow the outcome of this flip these billions of years later. More immediately, we are sure the outcome was caused by the many, many, specifics of the situation at the time of the coin’s flight (humidity, wind, the specific gravity of its location…), and the various exact features of the flip itself (speed, rotation, height of toss, size of coin…).  All these factor into the exact outcome of any and all particular flips.  In this sense, that event—and all events, you picking a shirt from your closet this morning, for example– have causes sufficient for their occurrence: they are sufficiently caused. 

But who cares?  Dennett says this kind of cause is “diffuse, complex and uninteresting.” We can really do nothing with it. What we really want are Necessary Causes, not sufficient causes, he says, and this is just what a coin toss lacks.  No one or two or three factors exist (or are evident to us and evident to us in time) to determine the outcome in a fair human coin flip. The outcome is “up in the air” so to speak. It has no cause, in that way.  It is a very ordinary event (no “spirits,” no “mind,” no extraordinary “powers”) and it has no (necessary) cause! 

The same may be said for the “choice” of your shirt this morning: it had no particular cause!  And this in spite of B.F.Skinner (a Laplacean scientist of psychology), who contends that all human choices are determined by our prior social conditioning.  But, like the coin, how often do the sufficient causes (our past social training, in this case) serve up an element or two of obvious determination (a necessary cause) of some specific outcome, some “choice”? “I’ll wear the blue shirt, today,” I decide.

We should pause here, and appreciate this recognition. Nothing in particular (no physical force, no environmental condition) caused the coin’s outcome, or maybe even the choice of your shirt.  A coin toss is both caused and determined in its outcome (by sufficient causes) and NOT caused and determined (by a necessary cause) at the same time. Let us explore these circumstances.

Maybe this idea of Sufficient Causation is not helpful to us?  As Dennett has already said, this kind of explanation is all over the place (“diffuse”), extremely protracted (“complex”), and “uninteresting” because it does not exclude much of anything. “Sufficient Cause” seems to appeal to our inclination to think of everything as being involved with everything else, at least in some sense.

(“All is One” : Ouroborus, the Egyptian and Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail in an eternal act of self-destruction and recreation. Pronounced various ways including: ‘Ore-o-bore-us, second ‘o’ is long.)

In this obtuse way, the idea of sufficient causation is helpful, I suppose, and Dennett acknowledges this: we seem to be lucky that the world we are in has the character that it has, because a lot has come out of it.  All the many different things interact and it comes to some notable occurrences.  For example, we know much about the chemical and structural character of the simplest living things, yet we cannot recreate them, cannot produce Life from Non-Life in a lab. There seems to be “many more ways to not be alive than to be alive,” a prominent biologist, Richard Dawkins, has concluded.  We are lucky to have the degree of complexity that we do have, for even in our own universe (let alone other “possible universes”) there seem to be many places where “things” just don’t come to much.

(What if all the interacting forces and particle in this part of the universe almost totally cancelled each other out?  It would be like a galactic Sargasso Sea, a lot stuff but just not doing much of anything together.) 
(A diver swims below the debris of the Sargasso Sea.
But most of our world seems to be highly diverse, interactive and consequential: Simpler things accumulate, bond, congeal, constitute, formulate more complicated “things.” What then is ‘more real,’ the little pieces or the big thing they compose?  Are there any limits to how big this process of accumulation can grow, and on what terms do these processes of congregation occur?)

Often a necessary cause will jump right out at us from all the sufficient causes that were also present for an event.  A traffic accident was “caused” (necessary cause) by the car that ran the light, in addition to the state of particles shortly after the Big Bang and Henry Ford’s invention of the auto assembly line in 1913 that made mass auto transit feasible— all parts of the sufficient causes that do play their role in this car crash.

Dennett cites events such as stock market rises and declines that we rightly often suspect have no necessary cause. Or World War One, the stage was set in Europe for that war, any number of events could have substituted for the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as its immediate precipitator.  It had sufficient cause, but no necessary cause.

Laplace’s Demon is very much at home in this world of massively interacting causes.  The Demon would have the capacity to know them all and precisely trace each exact contribution far into the future (and back into the past).  But we humans do not; we have limited horizons.  We do not even know with certainty the outcome of the day we are in.  “Subjectively our future is open,” says Dennett.  Objectively, from the demon’s point of view, all movements are already determined.

So, we choose by taking hold of (taking advantage of) a more limited pattern that we do see (a necessary cause, hopefully); we act, and then wait to see what happens.  Choice and responsibility, free will and planning (avoiding the bad, seeking the good), information and rationality, all are ideas based in our limited knowledge and abilities, contends our philosopher.

It’s a good thing to be a creature with limitations, we might conclude. It seems like we are free, in a universe that is already determined.  In this way, our freedom and our responsibility are conditions of our epistemic limitations and not our ontological condition. (What?)

(In a universe of interconnected causes, Subjectively we seem to jump in in the middle. This mediate perspective is crucial to our situation, argues Dennett.)

We are free because often we know no necessary causes to explain much of what happens to us.  We are like our flipping coin, no cause seems to stand out as The Cause.  This morning when I chose my shirt, gravity did not cause that, nor did entropy (they were all sufficient causes long ago neutralized), nor was my mother abusive in my childhood by always screaming at me and demanding: “Wear blue on Wednesdays!” Like the coin rotating in the air, we are subjectively free to make “a choice“: head or tail, red shirt or blue.

But “choice” is not always the best word to use. We do not say that the coin chooses head or tail, but we do recognize a new set of standards apply to the outcome of the flip from our perspective. A different way of talking about the coin-toss becomes applicable. It exists and behaves at two different ontological levels: the micro-physical level of the hard sciences and the macro-physical level of everyday interactions.

How is this possible? It is here that Dennett applies that promised Third Form of Causation: Final Causes or Purposes. “Generally” is how things constructed for a purpose work, not forever, not every time, but generally they do what they are designed to do. Purposes are always limited and from a particular point of view. A coin-toss results in heads or tails at generally an equal rate; a dog generally barks in certain situations; a bridge generally stands. Dennett explains how this is possible. The Coin-Toss is designed to “amplify’ all the sufficient causes, he says, and then ‘interpret’ them (“push the digitizer”) into one of two modes—heads or tails.

This may not seem like much, but it is! All the world comes to either a head or a tail, for a coin toss. It cancels out, or is insensitive to, or is a summation of, much of the world around it. It is an example of the origin of “interpretation,” of “representation,” and even of “meaning.”

To return to the original theme, this is how it is possible for a thing to be more than just one thing, by having wide-ranging “significance.” In other words, it is a “sign” of things beyond. This outcome—a head or tail—is a summation of the forces around it, expressed through the situation of—the design of— “a coin toss.”

A different example of purposes at work is an automobile. Similar to the coin toss, its structure counter-balances, or counter-acts, most causal forces around it; they are relegated to the background of sufficient causes. By doing so, its purpose has ‘the space’ to be realized. The auto stands against gravity, it bares additional loads, it corners and it propels itself. When we speak of autos, we generally do not mention the expansion of the universe or the decay of atomic particles; we speak of “the brakes,” “the starter,” “the chase,” “the grip of the tires…” But this is a new way of talking is not arbitrary, it is, and has been, tested against the physical background. It has proved itself.

It is a new way of talking for this new situation, this new mode of existence that we call “transportation.” Relative to the physical background that is apparent to “the demon” (and that is the focus of the physicist), nothing is “really” being ‘carried through’ (“transported”) from sub-atomic moment to the next. Each is a total background of (sufficient) causes shifted in its relation to the next total background of causes. It is us, in our limited capacities, that focus on some specific set of particles and “see” some continuity from moment to moment, from background to background, and understand some purpose for that specific focus. Why, to the demon, Time is not even an essential element of “reality”! To it, past and present and future are all one!

Each automobile is a summation and balance of the forces and conditions around it; just as is each coin toss, and every other designed thing or situation. They are an abbreviated representation of the environment around it, for the sake of carrying out a purpose embedded in their physical structure. Whether an organism or other designed object or situation, they are systems with a purpose, even if as minimally as the tossing of a coin as a method of human choice.

There is a familiar way to alluding to this tight relationship that can exist between the organization of a system and its environment: you say that the organism continuously mirrors the environment, or that there is a representation of the environment in—or implicit in—the organization of the system.

Dan Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 1987

(Allegory of Element Earth by Leandro Bassano, 1580)

One of Dennett’s main objectives is to understand many of our ordinary and basic concepts as very useful, even ingenious. Ideas like “person,” “reasons,” and “rationality” are not just subjectively real but objectively grounded. The same can be said for “herd,” “skyscraper,” and “Mississippi River.” It just goes to show that in our world—the world as it seems to us—Whole Things and Situations Can Be as Real as the Parts that Compose Them. Physics does not always have the last word.

We are lucky that our world has come to so many interesting, even if often tragic, outcomes.

My pet dog was a loveable animal. For over ten years, she showed great enthusiasm for life. Every day she chased squirrels—a related kind of animal— and never caught a one. She even loved the snow; it seemed to fascinate her that beneath it lay smells—signs of other things—she savored. But she got old, both she and I have limits, but she declined faster than I. At about the age of thirteen, we “put her down.”

I sat next to her as her functioning slowed, then stopped completely. We cremated her remains and still have those ashes, somewhere. My pet dog is now clearly atoms. She always was atoms, of course, but with a very unique structure and encoding. I think I will find those remaining carbon compounds, and release them from that plastic bag and from that tin canister, and return them to the Earth where someday soon they will be free to mingle with my own.

Logo by Marty

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